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There Is No Tidy Solution to the MLB Sign-Stealing Scandal Anymore

To try to avoid a blowup of steroid-era proportions, Rob Manfred and Co. levied punishments against the Astros that were supposed to wrap the scandal up neatly. Instead, though, things are only getting messier.

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In 1962, a fire started to burn in a Centralia, Pennsylvania, trash dump. It seemed harmless enough at first, until it ignited a coal seam underneath the town. From there, the blaze caused sinkholes and carbon monoxide plumes that rendered the city uninhabitable—even by the standards of central Pennsylvania. The fire still rages to this day. Surely the town elders of Centralia had no idea that their innocent little trash fire would spark an unending and unquenchable ecological disaster—and just as surely, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred must feel their pain right now.

When Manfred dropped the banhammer on Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch a month ago, it looked like a concerted effort to quarantine the sign-stealing scandal. Guilt was assigned to a group of bad actors that spread across two teams—the Astros and Red Sox, who are still under investigation—and the league looked to move on quickly. Manfred didn’t sanction any players, as they were promised amnesty in exchange for cooperation with the investigation. And even if he had tried to do so, the MLBPA would have swatted away the suspension on appeal with the ease of Carlos Correa turning on a slider he knew was coming.

I’ve been an ardent critic of Manfred since the start of his tenure in baseball’s most exalted office. I’ve condemned the effects of the policies he’s allowed owners to carry out, his lukewarm relationship with the sport as anything but a vehicle for short-term investment, and the ethical framework (such as one exists) that seems to drive the league’s behavior as a business entity. But when the punishments were first announced, I understood the reasoning behind Manfred’s desire to contain the trash fire that had gone up in Texas.

Manfred lived through the cloud of illegitimacy that the steroid era smeared across the game—from which the sport is only now emerging—and outlandish punishments levied at individual players, or a vacated World Series title, would attract only attention and scrutiny. These suspensions, then, were designed to serve as signposts that the league would no longer tolerate teams screwing around as wantonly as the Astros and Red Sox had, and reestablish a tone of propriety. Choosing not to go after individual players or sanction the Astros beyond a front office shakeup and a couple lost draft picks might be unsatisfying to those hell-bent on retributive justice, but attempting to do so would open up a whole new can of worms.

Within a matter of days, though, I learned that I’d underestimated the ferocity with which players and the public detested the Astros’ cheating scheme. More importantly, so did the commissioner. This story unfolded quickly and messily, even in the dead of winter, and once baseball’s 30 clubs faced their respective media retinues at the start of spring training, this smoldering can of worms dropped into a deposit of subterranean anthracite.

Thus the fire rages, unquenchably, in the very bedrock of the sport. Tempers are so hot that mild-mannered Aaron Judge and Mike Trout (who had to this point in their careers combined for 395 home runs and zero interesting on-the-record quotes) are both spouting off to reporters. Even LeBron James expressed his displeasure with Manfred on Tuesday. More troubling, it’s not clear how the sport can navigate from this point to a tidy resolution—or if such a resolution is even possible anymore.

As far as scandals and leaguewide disgraces go, The Banging Scheme isn’t among the dozen biggest all-time threats to the game or most shameful conspiracies. It was an attempt by (at least) one team to gain an unfair advantage entirely within the realm of play. It influenced a few hundred games in a handful of seasons, without leaving an entire generation of minor leaguers in poverty, razing dozens of thriving minor league franchises, or depriving entire regions of the country of competitive big league baseball.

But, as Ben Lindbergh wrote yesterday, it also filled a media vacuum to bursting. The scandal had a funny name and just enough weird details to fascinate casual fans, and it involved a team that had already begun to alienate fans through its ruthless, amoral empiricism and boundless arrogance.

Into that mess stepped a commissioner who’s spent the first five years of his tenure overseeing an explosion in profits and a game that has become less competitive and less entertaining on the whole. Manfred has alienated players by representing the league in the past four CBA negotiations, which over the course of nearly two decades have caused player wage growth to stagnate.

Before the robust 2019-20 offseason, free agent spending dipped to lows that certainly looked like a sequel to the collusion scheme of the late 1980s, regardless of whether this capital strike was as coordinated as the one before. This enraged players, and indeed fans, who have watched contending teams in New York and Los Angeles roll back their commitment to winning, and those in Boston and Cleveland completely dismantle competitive clubs for cost. Other would-be contenders, like the Padres and Phillies, have made a few big moves, but they also imposed arbitrary caps on player spending that strangled would-be dynasties in the cradle.

Still, fans of those teams are better off than those in Pittsburgh and Miami, who are left to watch Potemkin bottom-feeders with no hope of contending, or people in Iowa who can barely watch MLB at all.

I suspect that much of the outrage about the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal is built on frustrations that stem from other issues, and this is just a safe outlet. A team that was all too willing to play the heel has stepped out of line, a commissioner with little credibility to start with tried to paper over the cracks, and now five years of pent-up fuel has a spark.

What makes things extra complicated is that this conflict has multiple fronts. It’s not a strict players-versus-owners issue, because while the league office and Astros ownership has done little to inspire confidence, they weren’t the ones who started this. Neither is it a team-versus-team affair. Players who benefited from the Astros’ sign stealing have moved on to other clubs, as evidenced by the Mets’ firing of manager Carlos Beltrán before he’d even reported to camp. The fissures in the game don’t fall along tidy professional, partisan, or class lines, which sometimes makes it difficult to even understand who’s angry at whom, much less to heal those divides.

And despite Manfred’s efforts to limit this story to two teams, there’s reason to suspect that other clubs were engaged in similar forms of espionage. Even as Cody Bellinger is exchanging rhetorical haymakers with Correa and Justin Turner is cutting promos on the commissioner, the Dodgers have been accused of going outside the rules to steal signs themselves.

What results is an awkward multilateral standoff pitting some players against other players, some fans against other fans, some (but not all) players against the league office, and the union—as in the steroid era—in the awkward position of having to defend some of its members against others.

This situation could have been handled better had the Astros been less ostentatiously unrepentant, and had the commissioner’s investigation not been undermined almost immediately by independent reporting that showed the problem to be far worse than Manfred wanted the public to believe. Now that these initial sins have been committed, however, there’s no obvious way to mitigate their effect. Manfred’s investigation has come into question, leaving the Astros with a fig leaf to hide behind and the teams they cheated against with no recourse. And after months and months of obfuscation and half-hearted apologies, it’s hard to imagine what the Astros could do now to convince the public that they’re actually sorry. Even if they could, it wouldn’t be enough.

With that in mind, the list of available remedies is shorter than ever. Manfred can’t unilaterally suspend players. Nor can he vacate the 2017 World Series title or José Altuve’s MVP award without sacrificing even more credibility. (Not only is it impossible to erase history, but he’s already gone out of his way not to do so.) And while vigilante justice might be cathartic for certain players, Manfred can’t allow the early stages of the 2020 season to devolve into a dangerous and unproductive beanball war; to his credit, he seems to be proactively trying to prevent such ugliness.

Any meaningful and lasting resolution would need to be as wide ranging, comprehensive, and emotionally charged as the scandal itself; for example, cycling executive Jonathan Vaughters once suggested that a truth and reconciliation commission would go a long way toward healing the wounds doping inflicted on his sport. That never happened, because even the promise of amnesty isn’t enough to persuade everyone to be totally honest. And even if MLB were to attempt something similar, the baseball world doesn’t seem ready to forgive without punishment just yet.

One thing that’s become crystal clear as this scandal has unfolded: Manfred’s job is not to look out for the sport. There was once a time when the commissioner of baseball was viewed as a custodian of the game, but the last commissioner to act that way, Fay Vincent, was fired by the owners and replaced by Bud Selig, who served for a generation as the figurehead for ownership’s financial interests.

Manfred has largely comported himself in the image of his predecessor. A charitable observer could say that Manfred has confused short-term profitability with the health of the sport, that he’s a tactical thinker in an office that would ideally demand a long strategic view. Here’s another interpretation of the facts: Baseball is what it is because of the players who create the on-field product and the fans who build that product into a national institution. But these two groups are not Manfred’s constituency—the 30 owners are, along with the TV executives and potential investors who could enrich those owners.

Among the people who make up the beating heart of the sport and its cultural vitality, Manfred’s credibility is close to nil at this point. If he were a patriarchal guardian of the game, he’d be out of a job by now for being at the controls when disaster struck. But as long as the TV contracts keep coming in and private equity groups are willing to write eight- and nine-figure checks to buy a fraction of a big league franchise, Manfred’s bosses can live with it. Besides, the current CBA is going to run out after the 2021 season, and the owners are going to need Manfred to stick it to the players for a fifth time running.

Maybe the damage that’s being done to the sport’s image and infrastructure now will leave baseball in ruin at some point far down the line; after all, some fires just never burn themselves out. But by that time, the people who set Manfred’s agenda will likely have cashed out and moved on to mine some other resource.